Teaching Research Without the Research Paper

Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson describe the research paper as an unsustainable genre for teaching about research.  In their chapter on Researched Writing in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies 2nd ed., they also note the importance of teaching the processes and habits of mind associated with research writing:

Even though the research paper itself is in question, the reasons for assigning it are more compelling than ever. The question is whether writing instructors will continue to assign this problematic genre or whether they will find other, better ways of teaching research practices. (232)

This goal—of achieving the reasons behind using the research paper while avoiding the pitfalls of the research paper as a genre—is very much what drives Maggie and my choices to use ePortfolios in several of our First Year Writing (FYW) courses.

Howard and Jamieson, summarizing objections to the research paper raised by other sources as well as drawing from their findings resulting from the Citation Project, identify several problems with the research paper as a method of teaching research. They note a “disjuncture between what most academics consider to be ‘research’ and the version taught in preparation for the first-year research paper,” that papers “misrepresent real research and confuse students,” and, troublingly, that “undergraduates regard research papers as an inauthentic genre fit only for… empty performance” (235). Ultimately, they describe the research papers they read as part of the Citation Project as “simulacrums of research” (235).

In their overview of alternatives to The Research Paper for teaching research, Howard and Jamieson’s give good reasons for including multimodal projects and the use of portfolios—again, key elements of our own ePortfolio teaching. In support of multimodal assignments as part of research writing instruction, they argue that “such assignments challenge the notion of FYW researched assignments as procedural exercises in knowledge-reporting, and they also open up opportunities for discussing ethical and legal issues in using visual and audio texts produced by others” (242). The “knowledge-reporting” or “digest” writing I’ve seen many students assemble for ENG102 when I’ve requested a traditional 8 to 10 page research paper is part of what drove me to look for something new. Students in my classes have responded more positively to multimodal projects, not because they are more comfortable or familiar with digital composing (in fact, more students state with some alarm at the start of these projects that they “aren’t tech savvy”); rather, I find that these projects enable them to imagine their audience more clearly, and give them a wider array of options for communicating with them. Furthermore, introducing concepts of fair use, Creative Commons, public domain, and other copy-right (and copy-left) related concepts connects disciplinary concerns about source citation to the larger culture’s expectations about intellectual property rights.

Portfolios that collect several projects allows assessment of the process as well as the product; it allows “moving from teaching through the recursive process of research and writing with the student while also gathering work for a holistic assessment of the process and final product” (243). Howard and Jamieson note that there has been a trend to move away from public online portfolios towards digital portfolios locked behind course management systems; I am concerned by that trend because it suggests a limiting of audience and a return to less authentic writing. In the ePortfolios students have created for my classes, part of the motivation for many is the opportunity to open up their ePortfolios to the public—although during the semester their blogs and emerging portfolios are either locked by passwords or at least hidden from internet searches, Maggie and I give students the option of making their work public, something that many students express a great deal of enthusiasm for. My sense is that portfolios housed on learning management systems might be cleaner and easier for the instructor—and more useful for program administrators to access and assess—but they are much less flexible for students. Students don’t own what is in an LMS portfolio, at least not what they can construct on my university’s Blackboard system. If the students lose access to their work upon leaving the university, how much ownership do they have? On WordPress or other non-university licensed platforms, the students create their own accounts and so maintain actual ownership, which I believe encourages greater conceptual ownership and investment in the ideas and projects as well.

I believe that our work with ePortfolios is in line with Howard and Jamieson’s recommendation for teaching research writing:

The best practice we can offer is to remove The Research Paper from FYW, to make space for more extensive and intensive mentoring of research practices, in the hope that students who have become comfortable with the practices will more readily be able to put them to work when they produce research papers in their other classes. (235–6)

Those other classes mentioned in the quote, ideally classes that are in the students’ majors or fields of specialization, are better suited to teach the discipline-specific expectations and discourse conventions used in professional writing in that field. I hold that it is important that those other classes also pay close attention to how they use the Research Paper, to make sure it isn’t simply another empty genre there, as well.

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